When Soho Artists’ Bohemia Was Imperiled in the 1970s
From the August 24, 1970 issue of New York Magazine. This article was featured in Reread: Real Estate Mania, a newsletter miniseries that resurfaces classic stories of ever-rising rents, the next hot neighborhood, and some truly nightmarish living situations from the New York archives. Sign up here to read them all.
Between the high-priced real estate of Greenwich Village and the office towers of lower Manhattan are forty blocks of rickety lofts called Soho, stretching south from Houston to Canal Street and east from West Broadway to Lafayette. Soho (“south of Houston”) is an antiquarian’s delight where old-time stenciled lettering on the windows and doors of the small businesses sets the mind to roaming. Is it possible that Star Macaroni Dies Company makes the molds for the letters in alphabet soup? Is next year’s line of Easter eggs being designed now on the two floors of National Chocolate Molding Corporation? Who uses the services of the Silver Shoe Findings Corporation? Just exactly what kind of business is Fallek Products? Architecture buffs love the cast-iron-frame buildings whose sectional façades, invented in 1848 and ordered from catalogues over the next three decades, unify the area with their neo-classical fantasies.
In the heyday of Soho, rags were a flourishing industry. Entrepreneurs collected them from all over the city, separated them by fiber, bundled them, and hauled them off to plants for reprocessing. Then along came the age of nylon, Orlon, Ban-Lon, Dacron, and all the other synthetic fibers which are not suited for reuse. As the rag business in Soho went down, rags piled up. The landlord tried to rent the floors, 25-by-100 square feet, to other businessmen, but even at very low rents no one would bother with such small and unkempt space.
Then in 1966 something crazy happened — or at least it seemed so to the small businesses in the neighborhood. Leases to the upper floors were picked up not by other marginal businessmen but by artists, who went to work at once cleaning out the places and setting up studios. At 2,500 square feet each, the lofts might have been small for most industrial uses, but to an artist the space, with big windows at both ends, was a more than ample studio.
A Greek-born artist named George Maciunas bought two buildings, Nos. 451 and 453, on West Broadway and turned them into a single cooperative, as he had done with several other properties in Soho. Ten artists scraped up down payments of about $4,500 each and took over. They set up modern kitchens, living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms along with their studios. When night came, they did not go home like everybody else in Soho; they were home. Though the artists pay less per square foot than anybody else in Manhattan, and the neighborhood is not for everybody, they have made their homes as attractive as any in town. Gerhardt Liebmann, for example, a painter and illustrator who had been priced out of his last loft in Chelsea, now lives on the top floor at No. 451. There is a skylight in his living room and several dozen large flowering plants reaching for it. He has a rock garden and slate floors and a series of custom-built nooks for his collection of Eastern statuary in the back 50 feet of his loft, away from the noises of West Broadway. The front 50 feet make a comfortable studio easily accommodating dozens of oversize canvases.
The only catch is that the resident artists of 451–453 West Broadway do not have a legal right in the world to live in their property. Soho is zoned M5, which allows light manufacturing and commercial use, but not residential use. These ten artists are not the only ones who have the problem, of course. Soho’s 40 blocks are now the illegal homes of about 500 artists, sculptors, designers, dancers, and cinematographers. With their families they number close to 2,000. Seventy-five of the artists live in cooperatives and the rest rent their space.
As the artists steadily moved into lofts left vacant and unwanted by industry and formed a community during the sixties, the city adopted a policy of looking the other way. The artists kept quiet on the theory that as long as the rent is cheap it is better to let well enough alone. Recently, however, sharp-eyed uptowners have begun to notice that there is potential gold behind the grimy façades of Soho. Among them are art dealers (several prestigious ones from the environs of Madison Avenue and 57th Street have taken leases in the area), boutique specialists, restaurateurs, and just bored but well-off people from glossier neighborhoods who dabble with paint or clay and groove on the idea of having their own little loft in a really grubby part of town. Then there are the big-time, and would-be big-time, real-estate developers who are ogling Soho with the idea of replacing its old buildings with glass boxes; a project now being bandied about is for a tower called Law City which would be populated by lawyers, law students, law professors, and an as-yet-unnamed law school.
Now the reason the artists came to Soho in the first place was that it was ignored and cheap. It is no longer ignored, and soon it will not be cheap. So the artists have come out from underground, organized into the Soho Artists Association, Inc., and have decided to look openly for support in their fight to keep Soho as it has been. Their central objectives are to get themselves legalized as residents, to have some kind of rent control placed on their lofts to combat a landlord tendency to charge them more rent than businessmen are charged, and to keep out of Soho living lofts all but those who need the space for legitimate work in the arts. All of these issues will go a long way toward being settled on September 23, when the City Planning Commission holds a public hearing.
In the early sixties, artists who set up house as well as studio in Soho Iiterally shrouded their lives in mystery: Once the sun went down, those pioneers sealed off their oversize windows so that no light could seep through to catch the eye of a policeman or stray building inspector. Baby carriages were dragged up endless staircases every afternoon so they would not be noticed in the entranceways. Artists perfected instant retractable bedrooms and living rooms. Snap, wham, poof a whole environment would become a wall or a storage bin.
Elaborate secrecy was in order because the Soho artists did not qualify for the informal status called Artist-in Residence (AIR) granted to artists in other parts of Manhattan. Under this plan, implemented by Mayor Wagner in 1961, artists could take over the top two floors of a commercial building with minimal red tape as long as they had adequate egress, sanitation, and an eight-by-ten-inch tin sign by the street door declaring, in two-inch block letters, “AIR” and the number of the studio (so fireman would know they were there in case of alarm). But in Soho AIR ran into the new zoning code of 1961 decreeing that AIRs would be allowed only in “C” (commercial) zones and not in “M” (manufacturing) zones. The first artist to be refused AIR status by the city because of the new zoning code seems to have been Jack Beal, who was most recently represented in this year’s Whitney Museum Show, “22 Realists.” He had taken a big loft on Prince Street for $125 a month. Rather than move elsewhere — Beal is in the minority of Soho artists who can afford to — he stayed. That was in November 1963. He has been in legal limbo ever since, and so has everybody else who followed him into Soho.
The Planning Commission agrees with the artists that they can no longer afford to hang in a state of legal nonexistence, but ever since a commissioner named Chester Rapkin did a study in 1962 in which he found that a twelve-block section of Soho was supplying jobs for 15,000 unskilled workers, most of whom were from minority groups, the Commission has been on record in favor of preserving those enterprises which have come to be called “incubator ” industries. The Commission feels that their profit-making ability is so marginal, in fact, that even the slight additional competition for loft space from artists might raise rents to the point where these operations will fail or move from the city.
With due regard to the job-creating role of the incubator industries, the Planning Commission has now offered a plan which it feels will be compatible with business and art in Soho. It calls
for legalizing the status of all artists now living in lofts larger than 1,200 square feet and smaller than 3,600 square feet. All cooperatives, no matter what size, would also be legalized. The plan proposes that as commercially occupied lofts become vacant in buildings already partially occupied by artists as of May l of this year, they will also become legal — if the lease is picked up by another artist rather than a commercial tenant and if the loft falls within the new space limits. With all these strictures, this will mean, according to Planning Commission calculations, that another 125 legal lofts will be available to artists.
According to the artists, there are three main problems with the plan. First, artists do not want to abandon their 50 or so brethren in the big lofts to perpetual illegitimacy. Second, they foresee even more of a squeeze on Soho rents than ever before, since none of the buildings — of which there are hundreds — will open up legally to artists under the plan. As it is, rents go up to $300 a month for a middling loft now — a stiff rent for unestablished artists. The third point is that the artists want their lofts under rent control so that new leases will not raise the rent more than 10 percent. This provision would protect them against a landlord angling for increased rent on a new lease when he finds that the artist has made substantial improvements at his own expense. With thousands of hours and often as many dollars invested in his loft, the artist is locked in and the landlord knows it.
On the key issue of whether they might be outbidding the incubator businessmen for lofts, the artists are dubious. They argue that the standard 25-by-100-foot floor-through is too small even for most mini-businesses in Soho. They came to the area precisely because these small lofts were going begging. The Commission’s own recent survey bears them out. It shows that the smaller the loft, the higher the vacancy rate; 75 percent of all Soho vacancies were found in lofts of 750 feet or smaller; there were no vacancies in lofts larger than 7,600 feet — a size out of the rent range of an artist. Artists also point out that the long and narrow shape of most lofts may have been suitable for rag storage and allied uses, but it is not adaptable to most modern production methods.
Jack Klein, a real-estate man who has been converting and renting lofts downtown for a decade, points out that the Soho artist packs his own wallop as a small businessman. Though the figure of $100 million is often batted around as the added value of art to the gross city product each year, Klein thinks it may be higher.
“You also have all sorts of peripheral industries that get involved with art,” Klein says. “Some guy who is a sculptor calls up his man at a metal shop in Brooklyn and says, ‘Hey Joe, on this next one let’s make the tubing two inches longer and the metal sheeting five feet higher.’ There are foundries in Queens which do almost nothing but artists’ work. They are part of the art business, too.”
Last May the Soho Artists Association made a grab for publicity with the Soho Artists Festival. For a full weekend, lofts in dozens of buildings were opened to the public under the joint sponsorship of the Association and the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs. The normal Sabbath quiet of Soho was overwhelmed, the streets were full of gaping uptowners and suburbanites, most of them puffing from unaccustomed treks up and down steep old staircases.
Depending on who is talking, the Festival was either a big success or a useless uproar. The numbers were indisputably impressive. Ten thousand people came to look around and, according to the positive view, came away with a feeling that here in these shoddy blocks was a cultural brotherhood that had to be preserved against the incursions of great corporate glass. These weekenders would now be allies in the fight to keep Soho for the artists; a whole army of them had been gained in 48 hours, and a few paintings had been sold to boot.
On the negative side, Mike Leif, a veteran Soho painter, complains; “This type of event tends to create a bohemian environment; I’m down here strictly for the space and not to see it turn into a little old artistic colony.”
A second big event sponsored by the Soho Artists Association in June was happening in the Mercer Street Theatre complex. At $15 per couple it did not make much money, but it did jolt many people who assumed that only artists were at work in Soho.
The debate, even among its members, over the public activities of the Association should not obscure the good it does behind the scenes. Its executive council meets regularly with the Planning Commission in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Its Committees serve as a clearinghouse for complaints of harassment, offer expert architectural advice for loft renovators, and keep artists informed of what is in store for them.
Neither should the merriment of the public events obscure the quietly desperate situation of the many artists who want to stay in the city but wonder from day to day if they can continue to afford it. In the past, when an area was lost to them they moved on to the next cheap part of town. But cheap parts of Manhattan have run out. There used to be a thriving loft community in the electronics district off Vesey Street: In case you didn’t notice, for several miles in each direction the World Trade Center has obliterated those spaces. Once there were lofts under the approaches to the Brooklyn Bridge, but a massive dose of middle-income housing units plus additions to Pace College took care of them. In Chelsea, commercial ”luxury” renovators have taken care of most of the old buildings where artists once lived. On the West Side along Riverside Drive and West End Avenue, the barnlike apartments where artists could once afford to work have long since been turned into cooperatives or professional apartments at top rents. So now it is all or nothing in Soho.
Emanuel Popolizio is a lawyer and chairman of the Committee for Artists’ Housing. He is especially pained at the situation in Soho because he has seen what has happened to the Village, where he was born and has always lived. Looking mournfully at the dense commercial razzmatazz outside his Eighth Street office window, he says, “We tried to stop Nathan’s from coming here, but we couldn’t. We tried to stop Orange Julius and places like that, but we couldn’t. We tried to stop the boom in commercial rents, but that was useless too. Now we don’t have any more artists in the Village. Some of them are down in Soho. It’s up to the city to give them a little help now.
“When I grew up on Leroy Street, it wasn’t such a great thing to be an artist. If I pulled a bad stunt my mother would raise her hand and say, ’Eh … boheme?” Well, the city knows better than to look at its artists that way. But it goes on treating art like a whore — it wants to sleep with her but it doesn’t want to make her legal.”